New mothers are often concerned about getting pregnant again before they are ready. With good reason! To address that concern, health care providers often counsel new mothers to begin a birth control method 6 weeks after the birth of a new baby. But if that mother is breastfeeding, an invasive birth control method may not be necessary.
Breastfeeding has many benefits to mothers—one of which is a delay in the return of fertility. Many mothers enjoy a year or more without periods after the birth of their babies. Breastfeeding as a birth control method is referred to as the lactational ammenorrhea method or LAM. When a mother is using LAM, any artificial method of birth control can be considered a back- up method. LAM is over 98% effective* when ALL of the following conditions are met:
Your baby 6 months old or younger. Although you may remain infertile long after 6 months, the reliability of this method decreases with the age of the baby—probably because of the introduction of solid foods and the fact that your baby is sleeping longer stretches at night.
Your periods have not returned.
Your baby has nothing by mouth except the breast. In other words, the baby is not supplemented with other foods or formula and is not using a pacifier for long periods.
Your baby is breastfeeding at least every 3 hours during the day and at least every 6 hours at night. There IS a benefit to waking at night with your baby! If your baby is up frequently during the night, you're protected from another pregnancy!
We all know mothers who got pregnant while they were breastfeeding. We also know plenty of women who have become pregnant while using oral contraceptives. Both methods are 98% effective or more when used correctly. No birth control method can be 100% reliable if it is used incorrectly.
It is important to discuss birth control options with your partner and your doctor. Some common birth control methods (those using hormones) can decrease milk supply. It is a subject that has not been well researched, so your health care providers may not be aware of the risk. Your lactation consultant or La Leche League Leader can help you sort out your choices that are compatible with breastfeeding.
Keep in mind that it is unknown whether pumping your milk for your baby provides the same protection as exclusive breastfeeding.
Renee Beebe is a certified lactation consultant and has been helping women breastfeed effectively and without pain since 1991. She's the author of the blog Breastfeeding Between the Lines.